The average classroom teacher will make 1,500+ educational decisions every school day.
—Teach Thought, n.d.
Trying to describe the job of an educator is like trying to explain the inner workings of a computer. Not only is teaching complex, but it is also constantly evolving. Our profession has historically relied upon continual reflection, refinement, and refocusing on best practices for teaching and learning based on a plethora of students’ needs. Suddenly in March 2020, during an unstable and unprecedented time in modern history, many school districts had to transition to distance learning.
Consequently, educators had to look differently and quite closely at concepts that were present in the physical classroom and consider how they might transfer into other contexts. More specifically, the terms asynchronous and synchronous needed clarification as they relate to time and learning. In the brick and mortar classroom, it was often assumed that time spent in the classroom automatically equated to learning within that classroom. Distance learning has provided evidence that this is a fallacy; it became clear during this period that time with the teacher (synchronous) does not always ensure learning, just as time away from the teacher (asynchronous) does not always mean the absence of learning. Time is not synonymous with learning; in fact, distance learning has pushed us to look at asynchronous/synchronous time and learning through a different lens.
Time is the overarching umbrella in our day. There is time spent with the teacher and time
spent away from the teacher, and there may be a mixture of both. In the virtual setting, for example, there is time when students are logged in with the teacher and time when students are working independently. Likewise, in the classroom setting there may be a time when students are not directly with the teacher, (for example, in collaborative small groups or working independently), but have access to the teacher, if needed. Therefore, we created a continuum to represent the fluidity of asynchronous vs. synchronous time regardless of the setting (See Figure A).
Figure A: Time Continuum
Our focus for the remainder of this piece will be on learning. But what are the true definitions of synchronous and asynchronous learning? As these two terms came to the forefront of our educational jargon, many definitions started to appear. Synchronous learning occurs when the teacher and students are present, is instructor-facilitated, happens in real time, and has live interaction. Asynchronous learning is student-centered, occurs at students’ own pace, and there is no immediate support from the teacher. (Clayton County Public Schools, 2020; Finol, 2020; Fisher et al., 2021; Tucker, 2020). Not all educational experiences fit nicely into this model, though. For instance, a teacher may use break-out rooms during a live instruction meeting as a way for students to collaborate with each other and build on each other’s learning. Or a student could be working at home on a class assignment and chat with the teacher throughout the process to gain clarification. The notion of asynchronous and synchronous is not dichotomous, i.e., most student educational experiences cannot be definitively labeled as asynchronous or synchronous. Rather, these fall into a continuum of purposeful learning experiences as shown in Figure B.
Figure B: Learning Continuum
Implications for Teaching and Learning
Where activities fall on the continuum depends on the purpose of each activity. For example, Teacher A assigns a choice board as asynchronous work. Students work independently on the activities and submit work to their teacher. Where would this fall on the continuum? Teacher B takes the exact same choice board and uses it during small group time. Students choose an activity and work on it while teacher remains with them for support and to check progress on certain standards. Where would this fall on the continuum? The teacher’s purpose and accessibility help to define the delivery of the lesson whether it be synchronous or asynchronous or somewhere in between (see Figure C). It’s a demonstration of the art of teaching – a fluid dance the teacher engages in to meet the needs of students. Not all our activities can be synchronous, just as they can’t all be asynchronous. Some students thrive working completely independently, while others flourish in a virtual classroom setting. There must be a balance to fit the needs of our learners, our teaching styles, and the content we are presenting.
Clayton County Public Schools. (2020, July 27). The Art of Harnessing the Opportunity: CCPS Back to School 2020-2021 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuUHUs8Dmyc
Finol, M. O. (2020, March 26). Asynchronous vs. synchronous learning: A quick overview. Bryn Mawr College. https://www.brynmawr.edu/blendedlearning/asynchronous-vs-synchronous-learning- quick-overview#:~:
TeachThought. (n.d.). A teacher makes 1500 educational decisions a day. Retrieved from https://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/teacher-makes-1500-decisions-a-day/
Tucker, C. (2020). Getting started with blended and online learning [MOOC]. Teachable. https://catlintucker.teachable.com/